KENNEDY MEADOWS — The next four weeks or so will be magical in what promoters of Tuolumne County tourism refer to as the “Sonora Pass Country.”
Highway 108 beyond the Kennedy Meadows turnoff is still closed as Caltrans crews work to plow the abundant snowfall still in place as you get nearing the pass at 9,264 feet. The late season week of storms has added additional snow in the higher elevations that will prolong the closure but will add to the springtime winter wonderland above the 7,000-foot level
The summer crowds won’t arrive for three or so weeks and even when they do compared to Yosemite Valley and the Highway 120 corridor the region will be relatively thin with visitors.
The lack of people isn’t the real reason to take a quick day trip up Highway 108 before the start of the official summer season.
It’s the solitude interwoven with abundant traces of snow at the 6,200-foot level where you will find the Kennedy Meadows Resort as well as the first buds of spring popping up on shrubs with wildflowers following in short order.
Saturday I took a quick day trip to Kennedy Meadows to do an 8-mile round trip just beyond Relief Reservoir toward Lower Relief Valley. Perhaps three or so miles of the trail was covered in snow from 1 to 3 feet. Given where the snow was on the trail that is devoid of sketchy stretches and big drop offs it is an ideal trek for someone without any experience hiking through snow.
It was a pleasant 70 degrees meaning you can enjoy the snow without having to worry about freezing. I wasn’t the only one hiking in shorts and T-shirt. Toss in the fact you can stretch out on a granite overlook of Relief Reservoir devoid of snow while taking in the snow-capped peaks reflected in the water below while basking in the sun made the trip all the more enjoyable.
Kennedy Lake can also be reached on a split off from the trial that takes you to Relief Reservoir. The lake is a 14-mile round trip worth every step. You realize that the second you reach the edge of the trees and are gazing out at vast meadow in the midst of the most brilliant light green grasses you’ve ever seen. Kennedy Lake glistens in the distance and granite peaks splashed with snow surrounding you on all three sides beneath blue skies accented with puffy white clouds pushing upward over the Sierra ridge.
Even if you’re not into hiking, the coming weeks is arguably the sweetest time to head up Highway 108.
If you go before the pass opens there are plenty of reasons to poke around the Dardanelle area as well as the area immediate on top of the Kennedy Meadows Resort.
The area near Dardanelle was hit by a wildfire in the summer of 2018 that also destroyed the Dardanelle Resort store that will reopen in temporary quarters — complete with bar and restaurant — on June 1 or shortly thereafter.
While the fire obviously destroyed trees it didn’t ruin the granite accented scenery of what is still arguably the easiest access to a river in the high Sierra that also includes what is still some of the best scenery.
For several miles just past the 5,700-foot level the middle fork of the Stanislaus River — the same one that flows through Riverbank and Oakdale, passes Ripon and joins the San Joaquin River south of Manteca — meanders along Highway 108 just dozens of yards away.
Meandering is a weak term for this time of year. It is rushing as it tumbles downhill over countless drops creating a joyful sound. There are countless spots where you can pull off on the side of the road and walk to the river’s edge or walk to large granite outcroppings and soak in the scenery or enjoy a picnic lunch. Dardanelle Resort is near where the middle fork joins Eagle Creek some 51 miles east of Sonora. It’s an ideal way to leisurely wandering to soak in the Sierra.
Once the pass is opened and you can go beyond the 6,200 foot level you will literally be able to park your car along the side of the road and walk 100 or so feet to snow that in places will still be over 5 feet deep.
There is a spot along the last sharp turn that sends you almost due north to continue climbing toward the pass where teens from out of Sonora will head to once the last segment of Highway 108 is cleared of snow. It’s the perfect place for snowboarding well into July. Snow accumulates in a half bowl on the north side of a granite exposed mountain side. You can hike up it perhaps 200 or so yards before it gets too steep to go farther. Then you snap into a snowboard so you can shred it.
It’s obviously not a long drop, but it is fast. It’s a great way to goof off with friends. Many boarders work on their tans as well with a few doing the descent in swim suits.
If snowboarding in late May isn’t your thing there are plenty of places once you clear the initial steep climb above Kennedy Meadows on Highway 108 where the pavement’s pitch reaches a quad busting 16 percent — believe me, I’ve bicycled it — that you can pull over at the road’s edge and explore a meandering stream, small mountain meadows still draped in snow, and look upward at soaring granite. You can do it with short walks. There’s even more once you get past the impromptu snowboard area that gives you a taste of streams and the landscape at 9,000 on hikes where your car will always be nearby as opposed to walking for miles on trails.
For me the area beyond that last semi-hairpin term until you reach the pass with its stream, wildflowers as well as soaring granite and the Range of Light crest above year is the quintessential high Sierra western slope scenery in terms of what you can see from the window of a car or explore and enjoy up close with an easy trek.
At the pass, the Pacific Crest Trail awaits for day hikes as well as St, Mary’s Pass. Heading north once the pass opens the trail is typically light with snow and is much easier to hike. Going south you will hike into substantial snow. In late June of last year it was so deep I lost track of the trail before it reaches a notch as you approach the overlook of Kennedy Lake some 2,500 feet below. It forced an early turnaround with the added bonus of being able to slide on my rear at one point for a good 500 yards.
Nothing beats getting your back side soaking wet going downhill in 80 degree heat.
Whether you venture up before or after the pass opens I need to convince you traveling a mile off Highway 108 to the Kennedy Meadows Resort won’t disappoint.
Over the years I have passed the turn-off for Kennedy Meadows on Highway 108 perhaps three dozen times believing it to be an area spoiled by too many visitors.
The resort — even for a short day visit — offers incredible access to middle fork of the Stanislaus River and numerous meadows. Given the abundance of fishing and other activities that are easy to access it would be an ideal getaway or vacation for anyone even if their idea of fun isn’t hiking 14 or so miles every day.
Kennedy Meadows at 6,300 feet is also an ideal place to base to explore the Sonora Pass Country.
It’s less than a mile off Highway 108 nestled under pines backing up to granite outcropping while sitting on the edge of the Stanislaus River.
Depending upon the cabin you get, the river is a few feet away or a short walk across the road.
Kennedy Meadows also has a general store, restaurant, and a saloon. There is also a pack station.
More important than what man built is what awaits you in nature.
Anglers I have come across said the trout fishing is among the best in the Sierra. Some opt to stay in Kennedy Meadows while others hike to spots in the backcountry along the streams that feed the Stanislaus. The river itself is stocked regularly with rainbow trout. The backcountry streams and lakes offer rainbow as well as brook and German brown trout. If you are in need of a fishing license they are available at the general store. The trout season closes in November.
The area is also popular with hunters seeking deer and/or bear. The archery season starts in mid-August and mid-September for rifle hunters. The resort’s website indicates hunters have enjoyed a 40 to 50 percent success rate during the past 10 seasons.
The area south out of Kennedy Meadows around Kennedy Lake, at Relief Reservoir, and near other smaller lakes are popular with wilderness campers.
While I’m one of those hikers who think I’m not happy unless I cover at least 10 miles round trip and work in between 1,500 and 3,000 feet of net elevation gain during that distance, there are plenty of shorter hikes. Even the hike to Kennedy Lake — from the actual trailhead southeast of the resort’s stables that is 7 miles or so one way going from 6,300 feet near the resort to 7,800 feet at the lake — is doable for most novices if you take it easy.
If you are into scenery and nature photography beyond just your smartphone Kennedy Meadows as well as the first two miles or so of the wilderness trail to the split where a trail climbs to the southeast toward Kennedy Lake or keeps heading south to Relief Reservoir that’s 4 miles one way have endless photo possibilities.
Before that split you come across two photogenic foot bridge crossings of the Stanislaus River, vantage points that keep rising as you hike up granite steps. There is even a stunning waterfall where Kennedy Creek comes crashing down to join the Stanislaus River.
The area will soon start to bloom with wildfires and offers plenty of peak climbing opportunities.
Kennedy Meadows is also popular for pack trips as well as horseback rides.
The horseback rides range from an hour and 15 minute scenic loop that crosses the river into the upper meadow at a cost of $25 per rider to an all-day ride to Kennedy Lake where you can take in trout fishing, a hike or a picnic before you head back at a cost of $100 per person for one or two riders with each of the additional riders at $85 per person. There are also other all day rides. The most popular option is one that’s in between — a half day ride to a vista overlooking Relief Reservoir that takes about three and a half hours and costs $55 per person. There is more information on the Kennedy Meadows website.
There are 22 cabins including sleeper cabins (beds, small refrigerator, small microwave, and bathrooms) for $100 per night sleeping four and $85 for one sleeping three.
The cabins with bedrooms and bathroom with shower as well as a kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, basic dishes and cooking utensils, and a fire ring outside run from $105 to $200 a night. There is a 10 percent discount if you stay seven nights.
Staying at Kennedy Meadows means you are a short drive from Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet where you can day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail either north of south. Just over miles heading south on the PCT you will come across what some refer to as 100-mile view looking west.
The pass area is known for its early summer wildflowers.
You can also access St. Mary’s Pass and the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness trails from near Sonora Pass as well as hike to Sonora Peak at 11,460 feet.
Kennedy Meadows is 57 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108.
Currently for those seeking to rent a cabin, pitch a tent or park a camp there are ample spaces available.
The crowd also has yet to converge for day use.
The best part is you can reach the Kennedy Meadows area in well under 2.5 hours from Manteca.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org